ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For more reaction to this story, we turn now to Peter Chiarelli. He's a retired four-star U.S. Army general, former Army vice chief-of-staff and in retirement, he is an advocate for service members and veterans. In particular, helping them recover from brain injuries. He joins us from Seattle. Welcome to the program, General Chiarelli.
PETER CHIARELLI: Thank you, sir.
SIEGEL: You served with general Eric Shinseki, and you told The Washington Post, I love the man. I've see him soldier through problems like this before. Do you think he should've been given more time, or in the end, was his departure necessary?
CHIARELLI: That's really not a question I can answer. All I can say is, there's no doubt in my mind that Eric Shinseki would have taken the information that's been provided to him in the last weeks, and he would have solved the problem. But for reasons that are unknown to me, he made a decision to resign.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about some of the ideas that are talked about, about reforming the Veterans Administration. One is giving veterans vouchers for private health care, so that if the nearby veterans' facility does have a backlog, whether through too much demand or mismanagement, whatever, the vet could get treated promptly and be covered by the government. Does that make sense to you?
CHIARELLI: It does. We have a similar system in DOD. It's called Tricare. And we experience that during the war, when many of our doctors were deployed, and we could not provide care at our military treatment facilities. We provided a referral to go, as we said, on the market, and get care from the civilian sector.
SIEGEL: How important is it to veterans that there remain a discrete system of hospitals that are explicitly for them, as opposed to having access to this great American health care?
CHIARELLI: I think it's very, very important. Veterans issues are different in many instances. If you take a look at the number of injured that we have, that have come out of these particular wars, the VA offers a very high quality of care, particularly in the areas of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Because many of the people who work at the VA hospitals work with veterans all the time, and are able to relate to the experiences that they have gone through. And I will tell you that that's a critical, critical piece.
SIEGEL: This is obviously, I mean I can hear it in your voice, for a lot of people who know and have served with Eric Shinseki, an extremely emotional moment. It's a man who people referred to routinely as a hero and they're not cheapening the word. This, it seems to be, is a case of a very, very good man who's run up against some pretty terrible problems in his job.
CHIARELLI: This is a very, very great man. And to see this happen to him, at this particular time in his life, after his years and years of service, makes this one of the toughest days that I've ever gone through.
SIEGEL: Really, it's that bad?
CHIARELLI: I'm just saying that I don't look up to any man more than I look up to Eric Shinseki. And there's no doubt in my mind that he would have fixed these problems. But for reasons that I don't know, he's no longer at the VA, and that's very, very difficult for me.
SIEGEL: Given how strong the personal story for you is, is there any particular lesson of this experience so far, hard as it may be for you that you're experiencing from it all, and from the story at the VA?
CHIARELLI: There are lots of lessons learned. I think that everybody has to take responsibility for this. To just point at the VA and not take a look at the entire system and understand how we got to this point is something I think that needs to be done. But the key thing here is that we learn from this, and we give veterans the care that they deserve.
SIEGEL: General Chiarelli, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with us.
SIEGEL: That's a retired U.S. Army General Peter Chiarelli, former Army vice chief-of-staff. He was talking with us about what's happened at the Department of Veterans Affairs and about his longtime colleague and friend Eric Shinseki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.